River’s Edge (1986)

Directed by Tim Hunter

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River’s Edge is the intersection between David Lynch and Gus Van Sant.  Released before Twin Peaks and most of Van Sant’s work, River’s Edge precedes films that must have been inspired by this one.  It might just be longhaired Keanu Reeves (as seen in My Own Private Idaho) or Dennis Hopper (who played a big role in Blue Velvet, released the same year), or it might be the generally disaffected, pot-smoking, violent youth to whom the world and their own emotions are one large puzzle.

The characters of this movie, like in Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, struggle with death but more so with their own muted reactions to that death.  Their relative indifference to a friend’s murder says more about their inability to comprehend the severity of the incident as well as of life in general.  These characters react more to perceived betrayals, to the petty frustrations of everyday teenaged life, than they do to a murder.

The story’s inciting incident, in which a teenager brags openly about killing his girlfriend, is taken from a real life event, but everything that comes after is pure fiction.  It is seemingly an attempt to understand who these people are, both the killer and the friends who didn’t bother to report him.

The film offers up a variety of reasons.  Maybe they were scared or confused, indignant or distrusting of authority.  Maybe they were loyal to the killer, a friend they’d known since childhood.  Maybe, most likely, they were just confused, so slapped in the face by the whole thing that they couldn’t properly process the gravity of what had just happened.

In River’s Edge, the way the characters struggle to understand their friend’s death reflects a greater lack of understanding about life in general, at least at that age.  When you’re younger you reach a point at which you’re convinced you’re an adult, but that’s only because you don’t know what you don’t know.  The teenagers of this movie look like adults and try to act like them, but we constantly see the limits of what they’re capable of.  To put it more simply, a film like River’s Edge shows just how undeveloped the human brain is at a certain age, when confidence rushes past good judgment.

Most teenage movies are coming of age dramas that show how beautiful and messy growing up can be.  They’re often reassuring, telling us that these bumps in the road are part of life, but there is nothing reassuring in River’s Edge.  By the end of the movie two characters are dead, and no one shows any understanding of what happened.  They just stumble upon to whatever comes next.

Matt (Keanu Reeves) is our main character, the most easy to relate to.  We see his home life as well as his social one, we follow his affections for Clarissa (Ione Skye), and we respect his decision to tell the police about his friend’s murder.  He’s the only character who acts with any rationality, and we’re more privy to his internal struggle before he decides to turn on Samson (Daniel Roebuck), after he murdered his girlfriend.

He’s the most fully fleshed out character, and it’s easy to empathize with him when confronted with Layne (Crispin Glover), a manic character who considers himself Samson’s protector.  After seeing the body, Layne tries to run the show, ordering everyone to help him bury the body and losing his mind as he tries to figure out who ratted to the cops.

Samson, through all of this, remains quite passive.  After killing his girlfriend, all he wants is some beer.  Then he tells his friends what happened with the same tone of voice as someone discussing what they watched on tv the previous night.  He doesn’t want anything from his friends, not sympathy or some kind of disturbing respect.  He doesn’t mind if they go to the cops or tell anyone.  Samson isn’t necessarily proud, but he discusses what he did with little interest.  It’s only later in the film, when he’s stuck with the friends’ drug dealer, Feck (Dennis Hopper), that he opens up about how the incident made him feel.

Feck is the type of character who would become an urban legend in the kids’ small town.  He’s rumored to have murdered a woman years ago, and now he lives in paranoia with a sex doll he seems to love.  After the police begin to look for Samson, Layne insists that he hide out with Feck, and while the storm outside brews amongst the other characters, Samson and Feck have a quiet discussion of their respective murders.

Eventually Samson describes the rush he felt after he strangled her, and Feck is appalled.  While he loved the woman he killed, he sees nothing like that in Samson’s eyes.  As a result he shoots him, later saying that some people need to die.

For most of the second half of the movie Layne desperately searches for Samson, hoping to keep him safe but without any kind of real plan.  Matt and Clarissa sleep together under the stars, and Matt’s younger brother Tim (Joshua John Miller), steals Feck’s gun because he wants to kill his brother for ratting out on Samson.

The story jumps around these various characters over the course of a long night and into the next morning.  Their behavior is made to be absurd, underscored by the shared knowledge of the dead body.  We’re disturbed by Tim’s desire to shoot his brother, by Layne in general and by Matt’s and Clarissa’s indifference.

No one acts appropriately, and I think this is all a way of showing just how misunderstood but also confused teenagers are in general.  The use of a dead body is a way of highlighting the extreme uncertainty faced at that point in your life.  These characters aren’t prepared to tackle this problem, so they either ignore it or go about it in all the wrong way.

Later in the film, a teacher will lash out at the class, casting blame on them directly for their lack of outrage over a classmate’s death.  He doesn’t understand them, and he takes shots at both those who would say nothing and those would act with self-righteousness.  The only genuine reaction, he supposes, is anger, but his students go about the tragedy the same way they would if they learned the girl had simply been expelled from school.

River’s Edge is a little disturbing, but I think it empathizes with its characters.  It tries to understand them and even relate to their struggle.  Matt is the clearest example of this.  He thinks he’s an adult, and he wants to run away to Portland, but we’re exposed to his discomfort with the whole situation.  We also see him fight with his step-father, attempt to comfort his little sister and fall in love.  We glimpse more emotions and sides of his character than we do with anyone else.  He is at once cocksure and vulnerable, determined and full of self-doubt.  He’s just a teenager.

Even Layne, despite his deranged nature, has some compassion.  He acts out of love for Samson, we’re led to believe, but he’s just extremely misguided.  He has the right instincts but horrible execution.  Layne might be the most misunderstood character of all, and I believe he is deliberately made to be alien from us.  The way he talks, dresses, the car he drives and certainly the way he behaves is all an attempt to shield his motivations from the audience.  We might simply shrug him off and say he’s a weird dude, which he is, but at the end it’s clearer than ever that he’s driven by compassion.  He struggles with himself as much as everyone else does with him.

I guess that’s what being a teenager is, just not knowing how to deal with certain emotions and impulses.  As a kid you feel the same things adults feel, perhaps even more sharply, but you’re unable to deal with them in the same way you might ten years later.

As Jesse (Ethan Hawke) said in Before Sunset (Linklater, 2004), “When I was younger, I was healthier, but I was whacked with insecurity. Now I’m older and my problems are deeper, but I’m more equipped to handle them.”

The problems in River’s Edge are very real, but the death might just be symbolic of what your problems feel like when you’re that age.  The way the characters struggle with a friend’s death is the same way they struggle with their parents, siblings, with first loves, etc.  By making the inciting incident something as clear-cut as murder, we are made to understand the way these characters process even the most mundane of frustrations in their lives.

Up Next: The Rain People (1969), Seven Days in May (1964), Mystic River (2003)

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